Australia and New Zealand may be half a world away from Antelias, Lebanon, (which was Antilyas, Syria, in Near East Relief’s time) but the countries share a special connection. Today we are joined by Vicken Babkenian, an independent researcher and an expert on Australia’s work with Near East Relief.
DR. WIRT'S JOURNEY
The deepening humanitarian crisis in the Middle East in the aftermath of the First World War propelled the executive committee of Near East Relief to further internationalise its humanitarian movement. As part of the plan, they commissioned one of their national speakers, the Rev. Dr. Loyal Lincoln Wirt, to help establish Armenian relief committees in the Pacific Nations. Equipped with publicity material, including photographs and moving pictures, Wirt embarked from San Francisco on January 14, 1921.
Dr. Wirt’s journey would be a long one, and it would change many lives.
Over the next four months, Wirt worked tirelessly to establish Armenian relief committees in Hawaii, Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines. He arrived in Australia on May 5, 1922. Some Australian states already had Armenian relief committees, but they were not as organized or effective as Near East Relief.
Wirt made a nationwide tour of Australia and New Zealand. He helped to establish Armenian relief committees in all the major cities. Australians and New Zealanders were inspired by Wirt’s words, and they were very generous. Both nations collected funds and relief supplies for the Armenian orphans and refugees in the Near East.
FROM AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND TO THE NEAR EAST
Wirt was eager to recognize Australia and New Zealand for their generous response to Near East Relief. He conceived the idea of a Near East Relief orphanage for Armenian children specifically supported by the Armenian relief committees from Australia and New Zealand. The orphanage would be a special link between the Near East and the people of “Australasia,” as it was then known.
Wirt met with Howard McAfee, the regional director of the Near East Relief in Syria. McAfee agreed to establish a new orphanage in Antilyas (now Antelias), near Beirut, Lebanon. Near East Relief purchased a former paper mill that was well supplied with fresh water. The property was bordered by an orange grove on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other; the sea became a convenient bath house for the orphans.
The orphanage at Antilyas would be the first Near East Relief orphanage to be sponsored by a specific country. The Antilyas Orphanage was unique in another way: it was one of only two orphanage properties that Near East Relief purchased outright (the second being Jubeil); all others were rented or donated. The people of Australia and New Zealand helped to make this special purchase happen.
The Australasian Orphanage opened with 1,700 Armenian children in November. Most of the children were evacuees from other orphanages in the Turkish interior.
A prominent Australian academic, Dr. Alexander Leeper, wrote about his visit to Antilyas in the Red Cross Record in 1923. According to Leeper, the orphanage was as ‘thoroughly Australian as if it stood in one of the streets of Melbourne or Sydney.’ It was an institution in which the people of his country could ‘feel justifiable pride.’
DEDICATED WORKERS FROM HOME AND ABROAD
The directors of the orphanage were Col. John and Mrs. Lydia Knudsen of New Zealand. John had been a captain for the New Zealand Army on the western front during the First World War. He then volunteered for service with Near East Relief, and became the treasurer of the organization’s Aleppo branch.
Mrs. Knudsen gave birth to a baby boy in Antilyas in 1923. John Jr. was born to parents from New Zealand, delivered by an American nurse, at an orphanage funded by Australians, in a Syrian (now Lebanese) city under a French protectorate. The Knudsens joked that they weren’t entirely sure of their son’s nationality.
The Knudsens were assisted by several capable volunteers from Australia. The group included Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Bryce of Sydney, and Miss Hilda King and Miss Gordon (whose first name is unfortunately unknown to us), both of Melbourne.
The orphanage employed about forty teachers and vocational leaders, as well as forty women known as mayrigs (mothers) who attend to the children’s food and clothing. Regular shipments of relief supplies arrived at the orphanage from various ports in Australia and New Zealand. The Commonwealth Government Line of Steamers shipped the supplies free of charge.
A CENTER FOR INDUSTRIAL EDUCATION
Antilyas was an important industrial center for Near East Relief. The orphanage workshops handled both local and foreign orders for goods, including pottery and carpentry. Rev. James Edwin Cresswell visited the Australasian Orphanage in 1923. He was impressed to find that in addition to receiving food and clothing, the orphans could choose to learn one of fourteen different trades as a means towards their future support.
In his inspection of the dormitories, Cresswell noticed blankets that had recently arrived from Melbourne. He wrote, ‘It was delightful to turn over the corners of these blankets and find the name of a well known Australian firm, and to know that in Australia we are ministering to such dire necessity as one sees here.’
Cresswell noted that the orphanage consumed a vast array of Australian branded products. He also ‘heard of those who spoke with no little appreciation of South Australian honey.’ Cresswell watched the orphans, some of whom were quite small boys, making boots out of leather from Sydney tanneries. He visited the bakery where Australian flour was being made into the tiny loaves of bread that formed an essential part of the orphan’s diet.
Left: A young carpenter at the Antilyas workshop, c. 1927.
FROM ORPHANAGE TO RELIGIOUS CENTER
The Antilyas orphanage was one of the last Near East Relief-administered orphanages. It closed its doors in 1928. Most of the boys who had left the orphanage found jobs in their chosen trades, but their wages were exceedingly small. They were still in need of financial assistance. The Australian relief committees organised a system to check in on the graduates and look after their well-being until they were self-sufficient. The orphanage also offered small subsidies to help the boys establish their own businesses.
When the time came to sell the Australasian orphanage, Near East Relief wanted to ensure that the property would continue to serve the Armenian people of Lebanon. When the orphanage closed, Near East Relief sold the property to the Catholicosate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Cilicia. The Catholicosate in Antelias (as the city is now known) is one of two important centers in the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church. The Catholicosate serves as a Holy See for many people in the Armenian diaspora. Today, there is a beautiful cathedral and seminary where the orphanage once stood.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vicken Babkenian is an independent researcher for the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Sydney, and co-author of Armenia, Australia and the Great War (NewSouth Publishing, 2016). Portions of this text originally appeared as an essay in Genocide Perspectives IV: Essays on Holocaust and Genocide (Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 2012). You can read more of Vicken’s work here.